In his earliest childhood recollection, young Bruno Schulz sits on the floor ringed by an admiring household while he scrawls one “drawing” after another over the pages of old newspapers. In his creative transports, the child still inhabits “the age of genius,” still has unselfconscious access to the realm of myth. Or so it seemed to the man whom the child became; all of that man’s strivings would be to reacquire his early powers, to “mature into childhood.”
Schulz’s strivings would issue in two bodies of work: etchings and drawings which would be of no great interest today had Schulz not become famous by other means; and two short books, collections of stories and sketches about the inner life of a boy in provincial Galicia, that propelled him to the forefront of Polish letters in the interwar years. Rich in fantasy, sensuous in their apprehension of the living world, elegant in style, witty, underpinned by a mystical but coherent idealistic aesthetic, Cinnamon Shops and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass were unique and startling productions, seeming to come out of nowhere.
Schulz had been born in 1892, the third child of Jewish parents from the merchant class, and named for the Christian saint Bruno on whose name-day his birthday fell. The province of his birth was at the time a crownland of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His home town, Drohobycz, was something of an industrial center with oil wells nearby. After World War I Drohobycz again became part of a resurrected Poland.
There was a Jewish school in Drohobycz, but Schulz was sent to the Polish gymnasium, where he excelled in art. His languages were Polish and German; he did not speak the Yiddish of the streets. Dissuaded by his family from becoming an artist, he registered to study architecture at the polytechnic in Lwów, but had to break off his studies when war was declared in 1914. Because of a heart defect he was not called up. Returning to Drohobycz, he set about a program of intensive self-education, reading and practicing his draftsmanship. He put together a portfolio of graphics on erotic themes entitled The Book of I dolatry and tried to sell copies, with some diffidence and not much success.
Unable to make a living as an artist, saddled, after his father’s death, with a houseful of ailing relatives to support, he took a job as an art teacher at a local school, a position he held until 1941. Though respected by his students, he found school life stultifying and wrote letter after letter imploring the authorities for time off to pursue his creative work, letters to which, to their credit, they did not always turn a deaf ear.
Despite his isolation in the provinces, Schulz was able to exhibit his artworks in various cities in Poland and to enter into correspondence with kindred spirits. Into his letters—of which only a small proportion have survived—he poured much of his creative energy. Jerzy Ficowski …